19 Feb 2014
Last month my wife Katie and I flew from Auckland to Queenstown and then headed up to Oamaru to meet with the team at Scotts Brewing co. We had been in contact late 2013 and I liked what I was hearing with regard to their operation, the next logical step was to head on down and meet face to face…. More or less to make sure that they weren’t wierdos. Like any business relationship the most important thing is that you can all get on, and that you’re all on the same page and heading in roughly the same direction.
So why Scotts? There must be a bounty of breweries in the north island that are cheaper to get to and even more experienced. The decision for me was quite simple really… Firstly, they were the only brewery I was in contact with that a) replied to my emails b) were hungry for new business.In fact right off the bat I had the impression that they were just as excited about the prospect of taking on a contract brewer as I was excited about brewing. And lastly, the gluten free pale ale I tried before getting in contact was in near perfect condition (and it was a few months old on the shelf). Now Ill admit straight away that I really do prefer my beers with gluten, lots of gluten…. It’s a very different beverage without wheat and not entirely suited to my tastes. However Scotts offerings are decent and the technical story that the beer tells is even better!
With a beer that really doesn’t have the malt complexity and body of its barley counterparts there is absolutely nowhere for faults to hide. What I was looking for when searching for a brewery was perfectly brewed beer, and more importantly, perfectly packaged beer. You’d think this would be an easy task with such a great selection on offer at liquor stores and supermarkets around the country…. But its not. There’s a lot of craft breweries struggling to get their beer packaged free from faults, sometimes as minor as a little oxidation or improper storage, but sometimes unacceptable faults like diacetyl, dms and even bacterial problems. Usually (and especially around Christmas) the problem I’m encountering is beer that just hasn’t had long enough to mature, and was rushed into bottles leaving plenty of diacetyl precursors ready and waiting to ruin the beer after a few days in the bottle. I know it happens because Ive done it myself while homebrewing… At the last NHC I rushed 4 beers out two weeks before the competition, all tasted as though they were set for silvers or even golds straight from the keg, but once in the bottle diacetyl formed, robbing the beer of ALL its positive qualities and getting absolutely hammered by the judges. These are rookie mistakes, which are unacceptable on a commercial level.
I found none of this in Scotts beer, not even a hint. The hops jumped out of the glass and smelled fresh, fruity and without even the tiniest hint of oxidation… This for me was the clincher. Oxidised hop aromatics completely ruin a beer, and it’s a problem that’s rife with many IPA’s and pale ales on the market. “Whatever Scotts are doing” I thought to myself, “they are doing a damn fine job with the packaging”.
Phillip Scott is about as humble as they come, a quiet sort, with a cheeky grin... You get the impression there were years of chaos and hell raising beneath those country curls…. Im sure parenthood and the realities of running a commercial brewery have tempered some of the debaucherous years… You get the immediate sense that he's proud of what he's built, and like all brewers the world over there's a glint in his eye that screams passion and enthusiasm for the craft!
So that was settled in my mind, I don’t care that they are at the other end of the country, I care about the integrity of my beer and I trust them to see that through to the glass. It also helps that they have near perfect brewing water. My water at home (in Auckland) is great, really soft and Scotts is even cleaner, like starting at zero. They also have a brand spanking new 2400L brewhouse from the same Chinese supplies that provide Premier srtainless with all their kit, its a real piece of work and I can't wait to learn how it works (L plates on the kettle Phil?).
We all just clicked, having very similar values on flavor and balance and after sharing some barley wine (which just picked up a best of show at the Blanc Brew Fest competition in Auckland) with the team they got excited and Jess (the brewer) brings out a two year old bottle of wee heavy that was made by brewmaster Keith Grice in Australia (her last bottle even!) and it rounded off a great morning….
They are brewing impeccable beers at Scotts, packed with flavor and perfectly balanced. From the core gluten free range through to the protein heavy weights, pale ales, porters, experimental Belgians with pineapple and lime, even a lamington beer! I felt like I could sit and talk fermentation and process with them for hours and hours and that’s the kind of relationship I was hoping I might find down there on the east coast of New Zealand, un pretentious, and not forced, with a mad passion for perfect beer.
19 Feb 2014
We are officially underway! Sparks Brewing is a new contract brewery operating out of Auckland New Zealand and brewing beer wherever a free tank is available. Our first steps into the commercial world will be out of Scotts Brewing in Oamaru some time over the next two months. I brew small batches at home on a four-vessel HERMS (heat exchanged recirculating mash system). I brew at least once a week and often 3 or more times on the same recipe, splitting batches with different yeast, hops and water additions to compare and really explore every angle before deciding on which recipe makes the cut and into the commercial world. This process which started as a hobby is really a second job in itself, I take it seriously and probably dump more beer than I make in the search for perfect balance.
I like to focus on the little details, if I have exactly the right ppm of sodium and calcium in my water. Do I have just the right amount of crystal malt or roast, is my oxygen saturation just right, how many yeast cells do I actually have, exactly what temperatures are being controlled when and where. These are all simple details but together they add up to a complex process which comes together in the making of exceptional beer.
Over the years Ive won my fair share of awards at the national competition (Soba NHC) with a handful of bronze, silver and the coveted gold medals that are the holy grail of the home brew elite. I feel that this is the ultimate acid test. If you can achieve a gold in any category at the nationals, you can and should be selling your beer!
Im hugely inspired by whats happening in the craft beer world right now, both on the shelf and on the internet, there is so much variety and so many great minds behind the products. From the artwork to the flavours, the writers, scientists, fans and the geeks. There is a culture growing with a lot of momentum and it feels exciting to be a part of. As our range expands Ill add the beers and build the website (thanks to Lightbox Creative) around the products which finally hit the shelf. In a perfect world Sparks Brewing will be a constantly evolving seasonal brewery, meaning that each brew we undertake commercially will be a new beer in a revolving list of styles that Im digging throughout the year. If anything, you'll be able to rely on Sparks as your 'go to' when in need of something new.
So expect to see a regular blog filled with our success and failures, lots of geeky talk on ingredients and process and plenty of photo’s from both the homebrew and commercial world of beer.